St Olave's, London (Exterior)

St Olave's, Hart Street, City of London


Info and corrections →

Mystery Worshipper: Irish Rover
Church: St Olave's
Location: Hart Street, City of London
Date of visit: Sunday, 19 February 2012, 11:00am

The building

A beautiful little church with parts dating back to medieval times. St Olave's is one of the smallest churches in the City of London, and one of the few surviving mediaeval buildings. Originally dating from the 13th century, it was built on the apparent site of King Ethelred the Unready and King Olaf II of Norway's battle against the Danes in 1014. St Olave's was severely damaged in the bombing of World War II, but enough of the fabric and original masonry was spared to permit restoration. It was rededicated in 1954, with King Haakon of Norway (who had worshipped there during his exile) returning to preside over the ceremony. The Perpendicular Gothic exterior is somewhat squat in appearance. An arch over the churchyard entrance is decorated with grinning skulls; noting this, Charles Dickens called the church "St Ghastly Grim." The interior is mostly post-World War II, with some notable artifacts that managed to survive the blitz. Samuel Pepys was fond of St Olave's, and his earthly remains, along with those of his wife, rest in the crypt.

The church

The church community is vibrant and purposeful. Their website outlines a range of activities that are to take place in the church in addition to regular Sunday services. These include historical talks and cultural events such as music recitals. There is an Alpha course advertised for those who want to "explore the meaning of life" and a service coming up that includes a Caribbean and Asian supper with wine.

The neighborhood

The church is tucked away in the City of London and is a short walk from some major tourist sites of historical interest. The Tower of London is just around the corner, and Tower Bridge spans the Thames a little further along. Next door on one side is the excellent Apex Hotel. Other large hotels lie in the adjoining streets. There appears to be very little residential accommodation nearby apart from the rector's flat, making me wonder where the congregation came from.

The cast

The Revd Oliver Ross, rector, led the service.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Communion.

How full was the building?

There must have been between 40 and 50 in the congregation, which from above will have looked like a generous sprinkling.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A lady in a pew under the organ said hello before we took our seats. The rector came bounding out of a laughter-filled room below the organ, perhaps the vestry, to check things up at the front before the service began. On his return journey to the vestry, he noted our presence, stopped, introduced himself, shook our hands warmly, making us feel very welcome indeed.

Was your pew comfortable?

My ischial tuberosities, or sitz bones, rested on the firm wooden pew. Rather nice kneelers hung on the back of the pew in front, but there was no cushion on the pew. Even so, I was comfortable enough.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

People chatted quietly or sat peacefully. The large church windows with stained glass allowed the sunlight to stream in, creating a bright, friendly, and positive atmosphere. Laughter drifting out from the vestry made me feel relaxed and expectant.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Common Worship was the only book in use. We sang hymns from it.

What musical instruments were played?

A grand big organ, seemingly occupying the entire back wall of the church. It replaces the organ that was destroyed during the blitz and is an opus of the John Compton Organ Company, known for their theatre organs in venues throughout the UK.

Did anything distract you?

I noted the hymn books had been donated by the Worshipful Company of Environmental Cleaners and wondered why that might be. There was plenty to look at and my eye drifted from time to time to large commemorative plaques on the walls, but they were just too far away from me to read. Under the vicar's surplice I occasionally caught sight of what may have been fraying at the end of his trousers.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Much to my surprise we had a robed choir of four. The service was traditional: hymns sung heartily and some pieces performed beautifully by the nicely turned out choir.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

7 – This was a small gathering in a small church, so the preacher was not far away. The rector's delivery was very smooth, engaging, and comfortable. I felt that had I looked quizzical enough at any point, he would have paused to ask me if I was following him.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

This is the Sunday in the church calendar when we are encouraged to recall the Transfiguration of Christ. We can be transported by experiences – music, scenery, etc. – to different appreciations of reality. Jesus was following in a long tradition that included Moses and Elijah. We should pray for such experiences.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I was hugely impressed by the rector. He held our hands, metaphorically, throughout the service, pointing at the service sheet when it was to be used, explaining things carefully, and generally making the man in the pew feel valued. A tiny old lady read the gospel, and when she walked to the front she was prayed for by name. Various similar actions by the vicar demonstrated how much value was attached to the individual. I felt important.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

At the end of the service, several people wandered in to check out this historic building. I was really delighted that this was so much more than a fossilized relic of a church. The verger took the curious visitors down into the crypt and I tagged along. It was a bit eerie down there. Besides a wall behind which bodies lie, there is a fenced off area where a human fingernail sticks out from the earth. We really did descend to the dead!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

We chatted with a lady in the pew behind, who said she had travelled one hour to get there. The rector was eager to chat some more and we mingled in the coffee area. When I emerged from the crypt, I stood around for a while feeling a bit lonely before taking my leave.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The coffee was very fine: freshly brewed and served in a proper cup along with a chocolate digestive. This was quality catering.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

9 – I was excited by the concept of this place. They creatively make efforts to engage outsiders in a variety of ways. St Olave's is a shining beacon in a busy commercial part of the city, proclaiming Jesus as highly relevant to 21st century London.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Thrilled. It was a real shot in the spiritual arm. As I emerged back out into the hurly burly of London I had regained some perspective.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The little old lady who read the gospel really well and was so meaningful affirmed.

Our Mystery Worshippers are volunteers who warm church pews for us around the world. If you’d like to become a Mystery Worshipper, start here.

Find out how to reproduce this report in your church magazine or website.

Comments and corrections

To comment, please scroll to the end of this report and add your thoughts there. To send us factual corrections, please contact us. We also discuss reports on our Ecclesiantics bulletin board.

© Ship of Fools